Why Elizabeth Hamilton Is Deserving of a Musical of Her Own

How the founding father’s wife kept their love alive in the face of tragedy

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, circa 1787. (Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.)
smithsonian.com

When calls for a female replacement on the ten-dollar bill erupted last year, online petitioners nominated a host of historical role models to step in for Alexander Hamilton. But one powerful, influential woman, who aided the creation of our national financial system, went unnoticed—Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth.

The musical Hamilton, which opened on Broadway last August, has received universal acclaim for many reasons – its melding of hip-hop with Broadway, its ability to make history “fun” and its stunning performances, including Phillipa Soo’s spirited portrayal of Elizabeth (or Eliza, as she was sometimes called). To prepare for the role, Soo dove into Ron Chernow’s definitive biography of Alexander Hamilton, the source material for Hamilton’s songwriter, lyricist and lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda. “I think I was most surprised about how much she loved Alexander,” Soo says. “[Eliza] seemed to be driven by her desire to honor her late husband, to tell his story.”

As told by Chernow and Miranda, Elizabeth helped Alexander draft political essays, correspond with heads of state, and raise a large family. After her husband’s death in American history’s most famous duel, Elizabeth recast her public image as a philanthropist and protector of Hamilton’s legacy, while privately struggling to keep her family fed and housed on a budget. She outlived her husband by 50 years, and made the most of her extraordinarily long and tumultuous life.

Elizabeth Schuyler was born on August 9, 1757, the daughter of the Revolutionary War leader Major General Philip Schuyler. Her mother, Catherine van Rensselaer, descended from one of New York’s richest families. A portrait painted in the 1780s shows Elizabeth posed in a Marie Antoinette-style wig, veil and silver gown, but her dark eyes sparkle with humor and her lips press together in a knowing smile, revealing the endearing cleft in her chin.

Her eyes “betokened a sharp intelligence [and] a fiercely indominable spirit,” Chernow writes in the biography.

Elizabeth, her sisters Angelica and Peggy, and other siblings grew up surrounded by visiting military officers and patriots. She made quite an impression with her witty, yet practical, personality—especially on General George Washington’s chief aide, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton. He seemed to have been smitten from the moment he met her during the winter of 1779-1780.

“She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty…She has good nature, affability and vivacity unembellished with that charming frivolousness which is justly deemed one of the principal accomplishments of a belle. In short she is so strange a creature, that she possesses all the beauties, virtues and graces of her sex without any of those amiable defects which from their general prevalence are esteemed by connoisseurs necessary shades in the character of a fine woman.” Hamilton wrote to Angelica. He hinted that the army’s chances would be in doubt if Elizabeth didn’t accept his courtship.

She did, and married Hamilton at her family’s home on December 14, 1780. While Hamilton shaped the economic philosophy of the new nation, Elizabeth bore eight children, helped her husband write speeches (including Washington’s Farewell Address), and presided over a happy, lively home. In upper Manhattan, the Hamiltons built an airy country house they called the Grange. Today, the National Park Service manages the yellow Federal-style mansion as Hamilton Grange National Memorial.,

Alexander enjoyed the Grange for just two years. On July 11, 1804, his former colleague Aaron Burr shot him in a duel over a petty insult. Alexander died the following day, with Elizabeth and their children by his side.

Now widowed, with seven children—her eldest, Philip, had died in a duel three years before, with the same pistols—Elizabeth faced tragedy on top of tragedy. Her father died, and her eldest daughter suffered a nervous breakdown. Creditors repossessed the Grange, but Elizabeth scraped together enough money to buy it back—a demonstration of the dogged resourcefulness that got her family through lean times. Her son James remembered her as “a skillful house-wife, expert at making sweetmeats and pastry; she made the undergarments for her children, was a great economist and most excellent manager.”

Grieving, but now out of her husband’s shadow, Elizabeth threw herself into charity work inspired by her Christian faith and her husband’s upbringing. She and two other women founded the Orphan Asylum Society, New York City’s first private orphanage, in 1806. She served as its second directress until 1821 and then first directress until 1848, raising funds, collecting donated goods, and supervising the care and education of at least 765 children. She took a particular interest in a poor boy named Henry McKavit  (or McKavett) whose parents had died in a fire. Elizabeth personally paid for his schooling and arranged a military commission for him at West Point. When he was killed by a cannonball in the Mexican-American War, he left his whole estate to the orphanage.

Her own home was less stable. In 1833, 76-year-old Elizabeth sold the Grange and moved downtown into a Federal-style townhouse with her daughter Eliza, son Alexander and their families. After Eliza’s husband died and she moved to Washington D.C. in 1842, Elizabeth often traveled to visit her daughter in the capital, where she always received a flurry of invitations, including from Presidents Tyler, Polk and Pierce. At a dinner for about 40 guests, Polk remarked in his diary that “Mrs. General Hamilton, upon whom I waited at table, is a very remarkable person. She retains her intellect and memory perfectly, and my conversation with her was highly interesting.”

In 1848, Elizabeth—now 91 years old—moved in with her daughter for good.  She held court at Eliza’s home on H Street between 13th and 14th Streets NW, near the White House. Hundreds of dignitaries came to pay their respects, including their next-door neighbor, General Winfield Scott; Senator William Seward of New York, and President Millard Fillmore. In his diary, Seward didn’t share Polk’s opinion of Elizabeth’s frame of mind. “She talked sensibly of her husband and her papers; but her memory of current events and contemporaneous persons has ceased altogether,” he wrote.

Elizabeth usually insisted they drink a glass from the silver wine cooler George Washington gave to her husband. Some visitors sought her imprimatur for new legislation, while others went simply to bask in the glow of history. “She was the last living link to the Revolutionary era,” says Liam Strain, chief of operations for Hamilton Grange and other Park Service sites. “She was a very powerful woman, especially so because she hadn’t been a First Lady.”

Not everyone received a warm reception, however. Elizabeth never forgave former president James Monroe for leaking details of the Reynolds Affair, an embarrassing scandal dating to 60 years earlier. When Monroe called to ask for a truce, she pointedly refused to offer him a seat. He delivered his entreaty, standing in the middle of the parlor, and again, Elizabeth declined to bury the hatchet. “No lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference,” Elizabeth’s nephew remembered her saying.

Elizabeth fiercely defended her husband in other ways. She insisted that Hamilton had been the principal author of the final version of Washington’s Farewell Address, and not James Madison, who had written an early draft of the speech. She wanted to further burnish his Federalist legacy, which had by then fallen out of favor, by collecting his papers for publication. She sent questionnaires to dozens of his former colleagues to verify details in Hamilton’s letters and affairs. After hunting in vain for a suitable editor, she had her son John Church Hamilton edit the collection, which was finally completed in 1861.

Without Elizabeth’s work, Chernow says, his biography of Alexander Hamilton—and by extension, the smash musical it is based on—would have been difficult to conceive. “Her efforts made it easier to research Alexander’s life, because after his death, his enemies were in power,” Chernow says. To collect the material, “Elizabeth was working against the political system of the time, and time itself.”

She also helped former First Lady Dolley Madison raise money for a monument to Hamilton’s mentor and friend, George Washington, on the National Mall. At the cornerstone-laying ceremony on July 4, 1848, Elizabeth rode in the procession alongside President Polk and future presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.

Many contemporaries remarked that Elizabeth was active until the end. That came on November 9, 1854, three months after her 97th birthday.

James Hamilton once complimented his mother’s heroic work for poor orphans, and she replied pragmatically, “My Maker has pointed out this duty to me, and has given me the skill and inclination to perform it.” She could have been speaking about her unceasing effort to honor her late husband.

“I think anyone else would have been broken” by the tragedies Elizabeth faced, Chernow says. “Not only did she live, she prevailed.”

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